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Theology and peace studies alumna serves homeless in San Jose

March 17, 2011
After graduation, Whitworth alumna Kristin Nilsson, '10, wanted to find a volunteer program that would allow her to work in social services. She found Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), a program that challenges volunteers to "integrate Christian faith by working and living among the poor and marginalized, by living simply and in community with other Jesuit Volunteers and by examining the causes of social injustice."

Nilsson is currently serving in a one-year JVC program in San Jose, Calif., working at St. Joseph's Cathedral Basilica of Social Ministry, where she and a co-worker run the homeless drop-in office that serves hundreds daily.

"We meet mostly basic needs: lunches, groceries, a place to get mail, a public phone and a free medical clinic," Nilsson says.

Since Nilsson works in downtown San Jose, she has to be flexible and respond to problems quickly.

"A problem will come up, someone needs a resume, someone is running from an abusive partner, a fight, someone is celebrating finding a job - and we roll with it. So, the day-to-day routine changes a lot," she says.

She also works as a case manager with several homeless clients meeting with them one-on-one, challenging them to create goals, and putting them in contact with the right people to achieve those goals.

Even though Nilsson sees many hard and challenging situations, she still manages to find joy in the relationships she has formed, sharing in achievements and the overwhelming generosity she witnesses.

"There is one man who brings us some apples and cinnamon rolls every day to honor his late wife, who was a major donor to the homeless drop-in office. I tear up almost every time," she says.

As part of her position at St. Joseph's, Nilsson lives in an old convent with six other volunteers, with whom she shares chore duties and has weekly spirituality and community nights.

"I love that moving to a new city has been less lonely because I am in a house with community members all going through the same thing, committed to the same values. It's been good," she says.

Nilsson says that being a student, RA and HUB info desk employee helped prepare her by making her a "a person who can roll with what comes, who can multi-task, who can practice active listening and who can be organized with small details and work toward a larger picture." And she felt that working in a church's foundation was a natural step after studying peace studies and theology at Whitworth.

Nilsson encourages anyone interested in direct service to look into JVC. The program began in 1956, providing service to the native people of Alaska. Since then, JVC has expanded to serve about 40 sites across the U.S. as well as in South America, Asia and Africa. JVC serves locations most in need, such as inner-cities and Indian reservations.

Nilsson is currently looking at extending her service at JVC, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, for another year.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students, offers 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.


Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703, or